Dave Chappelle And The Messiness Of Ethics

This column is not about his Netflix comedy special, “The Closer,” which has generated controversy for its jokes targeting trans people and the LGBTQ community. I haven’t even watched it.

This column is about the complexities of being in society, and the messiness we must grapple with if we want to continue perfecting that society.

Once years ago, after I had given a talk about the rise of self-driving cars, a man in the audience raised his hand and said, “The problem is, we know our own ethics. But how can we make machines behave ethically?”

He was wrong. The problem is, we don’t know our own ethics. The problem is we get to ignore them -- until we can claim we didn’t have a choice.

If I swerve to avoid hitting a child and hit an adult instead, I did my best in a split-second situation. I didn’t have to grapple with the philosophical and ethical dilemma of whose life is more valuable -- my instinctive response decided the answer.



But with a self-driving car, we have to decide in advance. We have to make an intentional choice about which life is more valuable.

Which brings us back to Chappelle. One of the valuable things to come out of any conflict like this is the raising of questions we might otherwise assume answers to: What are the boundaries of acceptable comedy? How much air cover does “I’m only joking” buy you? When does free speech become hate speech? What about when your free speech might cause harm, violence, or death?

In the United States, speech is not protected under the First Amendment if the speaker intends to incite a violation of the law that is both imminent and likely -- but as long as you can claim that the illegal action isn’t imminent, you can say pretty much anything.

In Hess v Indiana, the Supreme Court found that Hess was protected under the First Amendment because his words "amounted to nothing more than advocacy of illegal action at some indefinite future time.”

Think about that: I can encourage you to do something illegal, even kill someone, at some indefinite future time, and I’m protected under the First Amendment. Who stands to gain when we set the bar there? Who loses?

And what is the role of the network or platform? It gets more complex in the streaming age. If I’m NBC circa… oh, any time up until this past decade, every show I choose to air is an editorial decision. I have one channel, one network, one opportunity to decide how I think you should spend this half hour.

But if I’m Netflix -- or any other streaming service -- my job is not to decide what you should watch now, or ever. My job is to make sure I’ve got almost anything you might choose to watch, ready and waiting for the moment you choose to watch it.

If I have one channel, and I’m telling people what I think they should watch at 8 p.m. on a Thursday, running with Chappelle is a statement about what I think is important.

If I have infinite channels, having Chappelle be one of them is merely a recognition that someone, somewhere might want to watch it sometime.

The Chappelle controversy reminds us that there are ethical dilemmas we have yet to grapple with, areas where we don’t, in fact, know our own ethics. Sometimes -- often -- the reason we don’t know them is that it’s uncomfortable to look too closely. But it’s essential to engage with that discomfort, with that messiness, if we want to continue to build a better society.

1 comment about "Dave Chappelle And The Messiness Of Ethics".
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  1. Benjamin Bankoff from PMP Marketing Group, October 28, 2021 at 4:45 p.m.

    Who draws the line on offensive vs harmful? Is being harmful defined as taking physical action, or does it also include mental/psychological harm? Comedy virtually always comes at the expense of something/someone, which can be offensive to the object of the joke, but I'm unsure it causes harm. Given that the state of being offended is highly subjective, it's worrisome to consider shutting down speech simply because it's found offensive by some people. If you look hard enough, you can find people that are offended by virtually all forms of communication. With that in mind, the notion of banning speech, like the Chappelle standup, creates a dangerous precedent where any speech deemed offensive, theoretically by anyone, is subject to censorship, which leads to the most important question...Who decides what speech is allowed and what is determined to be too dangerous for society? How are those decisions made? Are there objective metrics against which the speech can be measured to determine acceptability?

    Shutting down speech that one disagrees with doesn't seem like the answer. Combatting the speech with a better position/argument is a far more effective way of undermining your opponent and convincing others of your belief.

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